Conversation: Graphic Novelist, Director Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” won international acclaim as an autobiographical tale, told first in the form of a graphic novel, later turned into a film, of a young girl coming of age amid the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Now comes “Chicken With Plums,” another story based on her family’s history from an earlier period. It was published in English translation in book form in 2006. The film version, co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, opens in theaters later this month:
Satrapi now lives in France. In addition to her book and film work she contributes to magazines and newspapers around the world. I spoke to her last week in our studio.
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” won international acclaim as an autobiographical tale told first in the form of a graphic novel, later turned into a film, of a young girl coming of age amid the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Now comes “Chicken With Plums,” another story based on her family’s history from an earlier period. It was published in English translation in book form in 2006. The film version, co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, opens in theaters later this month…. Marjane Satrapi now lives in France. In addition to her book and film work she contributes to magazines and newspapers around the world. She joins us now. Welcome to you.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: If “Persepolis” was more explicitly about you and what was going on in your early life, what is this one, “Chicken With Plums?” What were you after here?
MARJANE SATRAPI: Well, actually, it’s not really a story of my family. It’s many stories of different parts of my family and many things that I have lived or things that I have heard. A couple of years ago I saw a photo of my grand-uncle, and he looked like a very handsome man and he looked extremely melancholic — and I’m a very melancholic person once in a while — and that was a moment that I had all these question about what was life and death and love and art, and I made the projection of —
JEFFREY BROWN: Just the little things right?
MARJANE SATRAPI: Just the little things. And I just wanted to make a story about all these things that I was very concerned with. So I used him and I made the projection of myself on this very handsome man.
JEFFREY BROWN: So the man is named Nasser-Ali. He’s a celebrated musician…he loses his violin and then he sort of loses his purpose. And so it becomes a meditation on living and art, I guess.
MARJANE SATRAPI: But of course. He loses all the pleasures, more than his violin. The violin is just a purpose, is just an excuse for the real story that is hidden behind this violin. When your heart is broken, if you’re honest, to survive a broken heart — I don’t think so. If we don’t survive and we start losing all the pleasures of life, then we die. But it’s a movie that talks about all of that. Actually it talks about death and it talks about depression and it talks about all of that, just to celebrate life and the pleasures and it has lots of humor.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, we should say it has a lot of humor doesn’t it.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Yes, because if I present it like that — this is the story of a depressed man — it sounds very boring, but I don’t it’s boring at all.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of how you present it. I mean, we see in that little clip, the magic side of it — the person who appears with this Stradivarius — so there’s a kind of mixing of genres
MARJANE SATRAPI: Absolutely, because the basis is that the characters are extremely realistic, because we don’t have any good and any bad, everybody has his time that he is glorious and he has his time that he’s really not nice. I’m being very realistic on who the characters are, but then about life — you know, in cinema there is no limit to our imagination than ourselves. And that there is also a man that remembers all his memories, and when we remember our life, the memories they don’t come in a chronological way. Some of them they are very colorful, they are full of details, some of them they are just like you just remember an action, like that, it can just go. Cinema is a world of imagination. You know, all the movies from the ’50s that I saw, from Douglas Sirk to Pressburger and Powell to Lubitsch to Hitchcock, all these films.
JEFFREY BROWN: Those really come thorugh in this.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Yes, all these films that I loved watching when I was a child, and I would watch them over and over. This is the reason is why I love cinema, that is the reason why I wanted to make film, and I also just wanted to celebrate all of that.
JEFFREY BROWN: These, of course, though start in the graphic novel, comic form for which you first were known. Now, what is that especially good for, or what are the limits of that, that make you then want to turn it into a film?
MARJANE SATRAPI: To tell you the truth, I never wanted to become a moviemaker. It was like I was a cinepihile, and I go like three or four times per week to the cinema, and I like to watch films. But, you know, “Persepolis,” it was a friend of mine who wanted to become a producer, and I really thought it was the worst idea in the world to turn “Persepolis” into a film, because first of all, the adaptations they are never good — if the author wants to make it, it’s even worse. So I was like no, no, no. But then it was this little Jiminy Cricket in me who was saying, You know, they are going to pay you, you will make a new experience. Are you crazy to say no? So it was really for making a new experience, being convinced that it was a very bad idea. “Chicken With Plums” is another story that I love, obviously. Since I wrote it, I think it is a very good story, and I think that the story is very cinegraphic, and I really wanted to make it my little drama. I wanted to make a real love story with a bad ending, because a love story that ends good is the life of everyone — you and I, for example. I always say to people, You know, if Romeo and Juliet got married, nobody would care about them. Imagine Romeo and Juliet, six kids yelling, mama, mama, papa, papa.
JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t want to hear that story right?
MARJANE SATRAPI: No, absolutely. That is our life. It is not interesting.
JEFFREY BROWN: Go back to where the way these start in the graphic novel form, which is your art form first. What is that good for as opposed to either writing in traditional novel form or making an original film?
MARJANE SATRAPI: For me, who loves to draw and who loves to write and cannot choose between one or the other, the comic is the best form. And also, I’m a little bit shy to talk, you know, like, I was very sad or to describe — or when I’m too sentimental, I’m too shy to describe them. But I can make a drawing of myself and it shows. In words it becomes too much for me, I cannot do it. I think there are things with the drawings that we can do. Also, drawing — it’s the first language of human beings, before writing, before even talking, before words, human beings was drawing. So it is a form that fitted me very well, but it is a very solitary work, and I am an only child who has been always solitary. I found sort the joy of collaborating with other people when I make a movie, and I think it’s lots of fun to make movies, and right now I feel like making movies. Maybe later on I will come back to my comic books again.
JEFFREY BROWN: “Persepolis” opened a window for many people on a time and place — Iran. This opens a very different sort of window, but the same place, and I wonder, in our world and here we are at a news program, we see Iran in the daily news all the time. We don’t see that history, I guess, or culture that you lived and write about.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Absolutely. Unfortunately, you know, Iran is reduced to veil and beard and nuclear weapon.
JEFFREY BROWN: Veil and beard and nuclear weapon.
MARJANE SATRAPI: Yes, and nobody talks about our great poets and our great philosophers and our thousands of years of history and culture. This is really sad, because this country has not just a 30 years past, it’s 4,000 years. It was a very close relationship, for example, with the United States. And Iranian people, they say we didn’t know it. And old people, of course they knew it, they’ve just forgotten it. And in a way, a film — you know, I don’t think with a film you can change a life or the world etc., etc. But beyond a beautiful love story, if people can go out and watch this film and say, This country that we really don’t know anything about and we think in abstract emotions of Axis of Evil or whatever, a man died because of the love of a woman. I think that is just as much important as anything else, because, if we talk about news programs, the difficulty, the problem when we reduce people or a country to a notion then they become abstract. And from the second they stop being human beings, then we can go out and bomb them and kill them and this is not a problem. If we don’t focus that they are human beings like us, might fall in love and even die of love, then it makes it a little bit more complicated.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. This film, the new film, is “Chicken With Plums.” Marjane Satrapi, nice to talk to you.
MARJANE SATRAPI: It was great talking to you, too.